TORONTO - It's time to get on with building a new hospital in Niagara Falls and closing four other health-care facilities in the region, Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak said Monday amid Liberal charges he is engaging in "byelection posturing."
Hudak supports a recommendation from the provincially-appointed supervisor of the Niagara Health System, Kevin Smith, to consolidate existing hospitals into a new Niagara South hospital. It would save $285 million in capital costs and $10 million a year in operating expenses, he said.
"It's good for health care for Niagara residents and it saves taxpayers money, so what's not to like about it," asked Hudak. "Let's get going. I'm tired of the other two parties playing games with this."
Health Minister Deb Matthews said Hudak had been opposed to building a new hospital in Niagara until the economic situation improved, and attributed his new position to a still uncalled byelection in Niagara Falls to replace Liberal Kim Craitor.
"While we have been consistent in our commitment to health care in Niagara, the same can't be said for Mr. Hudak, whose remarkable change of attitude can only be explained as byelection posturing," Matthews said in a statement.
"Our government is prepared to take the next step in the form of a planning grant so that the best health care will be delivered in Niagara going forward. We are on track to announce more details in the coming weeks."
Hudak's office responded by pointing to a Chamber of Commerce speech the PC leader gave in May 2012 in which he did not rule out building a new hospital — although he questioned where the money would come from — and left the door open to closing the four existing hospitals.
Matthews' statement didn't mention the fate of the other facilities, which include the Douglas Memorial Hospital in Fort Erie, Greater Niagara General Hospital, Port Colborne Hospital and Welland Hospital, Hudak noted the NDP said those sites could be kept open even after a new hospital is built.
"We can't afford it," said Hudak. "I think it's unrealistic. I think it's irresponsible and I think it's old school politics."
The Liberals and Tories want to pit communities against each other when it comes to health care needs when each of the hospitals is needed and wanted by residents, said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.
"It's a large community and they certainly should be seeing a new hospital," said Horwath. "Does that mean that small communities need to have all of their services cut? I don't believe so. I think there are ways that we can assure both things are happening."
Hudak, who represents the riding of Niagara West-Glanbrook in the legislature, said the fight for a new hospital was close to his heart.
"It's an important project and for me — considering it impacts my family, my friends, the communities I grew up in — it's personal," said Hudak. "I'm going to fight for it."
In his final recommendations to the health minister on the need for a new hospital, Smith also called for the construction of two free standing "urgent care centres" in south Niagara. He also recommended the relocation of a nurse practitioner-led walk in clinic and family health program to a location "with much lower operating costs than an existing site in Niagara-on-the-Lake," which would also be closed.
Craitor, 67, offered no reason when he suddenly resigned in late September. Premier Kathleen Wynne has six months, or until March, to call a byelection to replace the veteran Liberal backbencher, who had represented the riding of Niagara Falls for 10 years.